My in-laws had two children, one girl and one boy, but my father-in-law always wanted more. My parents had two sons, and sometimes said they wished they had also had a girl. I have often met people in the autumn of their lives who wished they had had more children, but never any who wanted less. Despite this, the fertility rate in America, the number of children per woman, is below the replacement level of 2.1, meaning parents are not having enough children to replace themselves. According to the 2013 CIA World Factbook, the US birth rate is 147th out of 224 countries worldwide. People chatter about how important family is to them, and then endlessly complain about children being too troublesome, too expensive, and too much of an interference with what they want to do. My goal today is to remind readers of a truth that for millennia was taken for granted; children are a gift from God and large families are a blessing.
What are the blessings of large families?
The Bible clearly teaches that children are a gift from God, and that those who have many are blessed (Psalm 127:3-5). For millennia, the family was a viable economic unit, with roles for father, mother and children dictated by the need for economic survival. On a farm fathers and older sons, who possessed greater physical strength, worked together to perform tasks requiring the most strength. Mothers, daughters and younger sons performed equally important but, in terms of physical strength, less demanding tasks. In the homes of craftsmen the work was different but the principles were not. Everyone worked, even the oldest and most infirm, doing what they could do to support the family. There has always been a balance between mouths to feed and resources to feed them, but with the coming of industrialism families became less of an economic unit and children came to be regarded as burdens, not blessings. With adults living longer, this balance has begun to shift back.
Children were the most common form of security for their parents in old age. Moses’ admonition to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12) includes the provision to care for them in their later years (cf. Mark 7:10-12). Children provided money and care for their parents and sometimes other relatives in an age in which government support for the aged and infirm did not exist. Even today the primary caregivers for aged parents are their children. Those without children often have no one. With governments worldwide going more deeply into the red and budget cuts inevitable, families will play a larger role.
Driving from Tacoma to Bakersfield in 1997 I asked a close friend in his late 30s if he and his wife were planning to have children. He replied “no, because we want time for ourselves.” We had four children at the time and I asked him to reconsider, knowing the pain that I had seen in childless couples in my church and medical practice. He said, “Having children is no guarantee that they will be with you when you are old.” “That is true”, I replied, “but not having children is a guarantee that they will not be with you when you are old.” I later discovered that they had had some difficulties with infertility, and later became unable to adopt. We have shared many tears, and we routinely pray that through work, the church and their community, they will touch many lives and will develop a support system for their later days.
Families help children learn how to live with others. Last year my oldest daughter left home to live in the dorm at college. During the year she observed that students who had no siblings generally had a harder time rooming with others in a dorm than those who had siblings. Children who never had to compete with siblings for their parents’ time and resources saw the world differently than those who did, and did not easily adapt to sharing their space. Most of these students learned sharing in school, sports, and many other venues, but that did not prepare them for the intimate sharing involved in rooming together. There are exceptions but they do not invalidate the rule.
Children help parents continually rediscover that life is not about them. When our oldest was born I was struck by the awesome responsibility of having another human being completely dependent upon my wife and me. If we did not care for her, she would not survive. There is no greater responsibility, whether running a huge company or a huge government, than caring for a child. As she grew I realized that we were not only responsible for her physical life but also for her training and development. Things that were toys to us were tools to her as she grew. Moments that we wanted to invest in ourselves ended up being invested in her, and she craved our very presence. As other children came along, they needed the same things as she did, and we provided them. Eventually they became able to help each other.
Children help adults do something that is truly lasting. No matter the job, today’s impossible challenges at work become tomorrow’s forgotten victories. How important is it, really, to make large amounts of money, increase the market share of a product, answer thousands of emails or attend hundreds of meetings? How much money, fame or power is enough, and how are the lives of those who have them? Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) said “the graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men”. Though I am a physician, senior Army officer and leader in the church, one day I will be gone and they will go on. Family is different. Patients can get another doctor, the Army can get another leader, and my church can get another lay minister, but my children can never get another father. Stepfather perhaps, but father, never. The hours of sweat and tears we invest in our work can produce great fruit, but the hours invested into family will reap a lasting reward.
Bill, a friend of mine from El Paso and wealthy owner of a highly successful transnational company, was on a two week long missions trip in Africa in 2006. Our pastor led the team and introduced Bill to the African pastor. After hearing about Bill’s professional success the African pastor said “yes, but what we really care about is his family.” This pastor and his people got it; they knew what mattered. Paul got it right in his letters as well. When describing the qualities of elders to Timothy and Titus, Paul said nothing about professional success, but he specifically required success in the family.
Medically, researchers from the Imperial College of London (LCL) found that having children may reduce a woman’s death risk from many common ailments. They analyzed data from 322,972 women in 10 countries, including the UK, Germany, France and Sweden. Study subjects had a median age of 50 and were followed for 12.9 years, during which 14,383 deaths occurred (5,938 from cancer and 2,404 from circulatory system disease). Women who had given birth had a 20% reduced risk of death and women who breast fed had an 8% reduced risk of death. Women who had given birth to two or three children had a lower risk of death than those who had only one.
Why don’t we have larger families?
Some couples are physically unable to have children. This is a great sadness, and medical technology has opened the doors to parenthood for many people who otherwise could not have children. Unfortunately this technology is often expensive and still cannot solve all cases of infertility. Adoption is a wonderful option for many, but can also be expensive. Making adoption safe and accessible should be a priority for any society. How many children have had their lives snuffed out when they could have been given a safe and loving adoptive family?
The generations in America since the 60s have been pressured to have no more than two kids; to replace themselves at most. People believed the world was overpopulated. Despite the facts that population growth has dramatically slowed worldwide and that in many countries more people die than are born, some still believe that the weight of humanity will eventually destroy the world. The “Malthusian Catastrophe” suggested in the late 1700s and predicted in the 20th century still holds the power to terrify. As a result, parents who have more than two children are passively tolerated or actively discouraged in many areas. Pregnant with our fifth, my wife was rebuked by a nurse practitioner saying “haven’t you had enough?” Acceptance or rejection of large families varies by locale. While most people in El Paso TX were very accepting, even encouraging of large families, many people in Washington D.C. are not. So much for “tolerance”.
A major media outlet reported recently that it costs an average of $241,000 to raise a child from birth to age 18. This includes food, transportation, health care, child care, and many other factors, and differs by region. Many use it to judge how many children adults should have. Some decide that they can’t have children, or more of them, because they can’t afford them. This can be valid, but it can also mean that they don’t want to adopt a cheaper lifestyle to be able to afford more children. If child care or transportation are too expensive, having one parent work inside the home instead of outside can save a lot.
Do children really need to play every sport, every instrument, and go on every trip? Do some people choose more stuff rather than more people? Do we spend money on a lot of things that don’t really matter instead of a few things that do? Do children want our money and things that it can buy, or our time? The answer is clear.
Purely from a financial point of view, avoiding children because of cost is questionable. Provided a family can support a child now, that child will return far more than his or her childhood cost over a lifetime. Even if someone does not go to college, he or she can reasonably earn at least $30,000 per year in the US working outside the home. In eight years they have produced for society at least as much as they cost to raise in 18. Since adults typically have a working life of four decades, the family’s investment in a child earns hundreds of thousands more, at least, than their cost in the early years. Even if they don’t directly earn income, such as stay-at-home mothers, they produce meaningfully in the children that they raise, and the cycle continues.
Some may argue that the money doesn’t directly return to the parents. First, it shouldn’t; no single generation deserves or needs the resources of all others. Second, some of it does, because children often provide financially for their parents in their later years.
Can’t care for many children
Some worry that they can’t emotionally or physically take care of more than one or two children by themselves, husband and wife. In some cases, such as chronic illness, they may be right. In other cases such thinking is an excuse for selfishness. However, no one ever really cares for children all by themselves. Raising children is hard, and since antiquity extended family and friends have helped the biological parents. Children have never been the responsibility of the mother and father alone, but also of grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and even close friends. Biological parents have the lion’s share of the duty, but in a responsible society, others contribute.
But how often do family help us and we help them? How often do we take time to build such strong relationships with friends that we help each other with hard and unpleasant things? How often do we allow them to help us? Is there anyone that we know and trust enough to let them discipline our children? Is it easier simply to focus on making money and put our little ones in the care of strangers?
What should we do if we feel overwhelmed by caring for the children that we have and distraught at the thought of having more? That question is too big to include in this article, but the safest course is to trust the Lord. He said “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5-6).
I’d have to give up my fun
Before we had children, many colleagues told us that we would have to stop doing all of the things that we liked to do. Skiing, scuba diving, backpacking, and other high adventure activities would fade into memory as we were surrounded by cribs and diapers. It was a disheartening thought.
In the event, however, my wife and I found that while we gave up some fun activities we gained others. Downhill skiing gave way to cross country skiing, scuba diving became canoe trips, and backpacking evolved into family car camping. We lost nothing, and gained new activities and fun people to do them with. Eventually as the children grew we began skiing downhill, and cross country.
Need to accomplish something for myself
We are a counting people, and we like to judge our value on things we can count. It is easy to count dollars earned, rank obtained, articles published, or projects completed. It is hard to count maturity gained, moments enjoyed, and lessons learned. In our relentless pursuit of meaning in life, we measure ourselves against others using things that we can count rather than things that we cannot. It is easy, when we have told our son for what seems the thousandth time to do his homework, to grow discouraged and think that we aren’t making any progress. It is easy, when we are tired of spending most of our waking hours with toddlers who can only talk in one syllable, to feel a failure. In such situations the truth is, however, that we are never more successful. We are impatient people; we want measurable success and we want it now. Successes in the family are often hard to measure and don’t come at our pace. However, eventually they come. Einstein was right when he said “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
People who in the past would have been honored by their success in the lives of others are denied that. In the Army, wives used to “wear their husband’s rank”. The wife of a colonel or general would be honored and would command respect because of her contribution to her husband’s success. These women had to move every few years, take care of their home and children with little help, far from family and long term friends, and often overseas. It was hard work which most women at the time would never have managed. Now women who try to “wear there husband’s rank” are rebuked with a disparaging “she didn’t do it”. In large measure, she actually did. Wives make a huge contribution, and should be honored for it. A “stay at home” husband should also be honored for his contribution to his wife’s career.
Parents are often not given credit for the accomplishments of their children. I was the first in my family to graduate college and the only one to attend medical school. At a reception after my college graduation, I told assembled family and friends that this degree was not mine alone. Many looked puzzled, so I continued. This degree belonged to my mother for the countless applications she filled out and term papers she typed. It belonged to my father for his relentless encouragement to go to college and for other assistance he was able to give. It belonged to my grandparents for filling some of the financial gaps. It belonged to them all for raising me. The same was true when I finished medical school, but the list of others who deserved credit was longer. Nothing I have ever done was done alone.
In the past, most women were affirmed through their homes and families rather than in the workplace. Today, however, in many circles only what the individual has done matters, and that usually means what they have done in the workplace. Some see large families as preventing women from having a job or career and keeping them from succeeding. Writers tell women to get a job in order to make something of themselves, as if it is impossible to “be anything” at home. The Bible provides many sterling examples of women flourishing at home and in the workplace (Proverbs 31, Acts 16:14). However despite what we are told, success in the workplace, for men and women both, pales in comparison to success in the home.
Occupations outside the family are important and the contributions made there matter. Teachers impact thousands of young lives over their careers, and police and firefighters protect our society. There are significant benefits associated with mothers working at least part time in income earning activities such as outside employment. Mothers who are self-employed or working for someone else, often contribute to higher academic achievement in their children, especially daughters. Some women have a greater sense of well-being associated with their work. It is wrong to disparage any honorable occupation, but important to emphasize that more fundamental to individuals and to society than any occupation is the work in the family.
What about when children go wrong?
Children do not always become productive members of society. Sometimes they rebel and even harm their parents. Sometimes they become criminals who actively hurt others. Other times they passively hurt others by consuming resources and giving nothing in return. Sometimes young people become infirm and cannot meaningfully contribute, and other times they do it willfully. Occasionally an accident will snuff out a promising youth. Rarely crime ends a life, and more rarely still suicide. These cases rend the heart. A good upbringing is no guarantee that children will do well, and a bad upbringing is no promise that they will do poorly. The small chance of a bad outcome is no reason to miss out on the large chance of a good outcome.
Over the years I have found that much of what we are told in the media and in many areas of American culture is wrong. While we should not have children that we cannot support (1 Timothy 5:8) and we need to be judicious with the earth’s resources, children remain a great blessing. They will grow our economy, build and defend our nation in the next generation, and care for us in our declining years. Some barriers to having larger families are valid, but many are rooted in our own ignorance and selfishness. If we truly knew what was best for us, and for the world, most couples would have more children, not fewer. Pity the person who lets the pressure of others and the lies of the world deny him or her one of tomorrow’s brightest hopes and today’s biggest blessings…a larger family.